Chancellors are wont to use marginal tax rates both to fund public services and national debt repayments and to appeal to voters according to their political priorities. Their changes are then reversed by their successor. This rather fruitless game leaves the poorest majority in society as the pawns in a game, always far more affected by changes than those whose wealth insulates them from the impact of such moves.

As Labour seeks to come to power to refocus policy on people rather than just GDP, it will be constrained both by a commitment to debt reduction and the accusation of being a “tax and spend” party, but it will need to fund its priority programmes. Higher VAT is surely inconceivable, because it hits the pockets of the poorest most. This leaves Income Tax and NIC rises as options, perpetuating the visible ping-pong but changing nothing structurally.

There is surely a case for reconsideration of what should be taxed. Currently, taxes are principally levied on work [Income Tax; NIC] and expenditure [VAT], the two activities essential both for the economy of the country and for that of individuals. This seems counter-intuitive.

Could it make more sense to treat taxation as a form of payment for use of the principal asset of the country, its land? This is finite. It has come to be “owned” but is in reality an immutable, physical entity and part of the heritage of the whole population. “Ownership” is really temporary, exclusive tenure of land by those fortunate enough, but who have done nothing to create it and often nothing to increase its value, though its use enables economic activities. Depending on the profitability of these activities, the apparent value of the land grows but without those carrying out the activity necessarily contributing anything for the privilege of its use. On occasion, value rises despite lack of use.

Taxing land value [Land Value Tax] could become an effective and fair source of revenue. Local Authorities or a national land-bank could readily determine permitted use for any parcel, ascribe a value to that use and tax accordingly. This enables those who would profit from using the land – through letting in fracking, for example – to recompense the State or community for allowing them sole rights to do their activities on it. The higher the demand and the more valuable the activity, the more can local services be funded and the fairer the overall tax system can become. Unused land with a defined value could more readily be purchased compulsorily for the good of the community rather than being blocked for asset inflation; whilst primary residences could be exempted.

Taxing land value annually [in effect a Ground Rent to society for tenure] would enable a concomitant reduction in the regressive taxes on individuals’ efforts, enabling more people to keep or spend more of their earnings, satisfying agendas of both left and right whilst recognising differences in local economic needs. Wholesale adoption of such a scheme would seem a high risk without testing its efficacy and de-bugging it on a local scale. Maintaining universal democratic engagement of tax-payers would be essential but Labour’s new focus on rebuilding local governance may offer the perfect opportunity for theories and new tax models such as Land Value Tax to be piloted, perhaps especially in rural areas with needs for infrastructure investments already enjoyed in urban environments.

Tom Serpell

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Labour: Coast & Country.

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